Quiltmaking and Social Order in the Tennessee Delta in the Middle 20th Century

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[Bloomington, Ind.] : Indiana University
In an area dominated by large-farm cotton agriculture, a vernacular small-farm quilt culture was established in the Tennessee Delta by the early 1900s. Its improvisation-friendly methods allowed makers to make design decisions during construction while assuring a successful outcome: a visually attractive product that kept sleepers warm, fostered mutual-aid sociability, and did not require too much time or money. Since both blacks and whites accessed these methods, I argue that improvisational expressive genres emerge as a result of particular historical conditions, of which ethnic and racial-group heritage may be one element. I find that quiltmaking in this setting exemplified a larger class of vernacular forms that have both practical and expressive dimensions. Such forms provide the raw material by which members of a society can intensify network connections to achieve an experience of community while meeting subsistence needs. In southwestern Tennessee, expressive-subsistence activities such as quiltmaking were a widespread source of pride in small-farm identity. In this subordinate sector of plantation culture, such activities sustained a claim on the Upland South yeoman identity. Although scholars have credited exposure to urban culture and outside activist groups with motivating the Southern rural black participation that energized the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, I argue that internal conditions of small-farm life also played a key part. Among these were the confidence derived from self-sufficiency activities and the breakdown of cross-racial-group economic interdependence as labor-intensive agriculture ended. Quiltmaking might have disappeared as small-farm households shifted in the 1950s and 1960s to a more urban consumer-oriented lifestyle by choice and necessity. However, it survived because makers reconfigured it with new expressive meanings that met needs in their new lifestyle. These included an identity that foregrounded individuality rather than group membership, continuity with (or rejection of) the past, and family connectedness across space and generations.
Thesis (Ph.D.) - Indiana University, Folklore and Ethnomusicology, 2014
African American, Civil Rights, identity, improvisation, quiltmaking, Tennessee
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Doctoral Dissertation